The Problem with Confidence
It's often reported that women's self-confidence plummets during a career break. A recent study* found that women on maternity leave start to lose confidence in their ability to return to work only 11 months after giving birth.
The problem with labelling return-to-work doubts as a 'confidence issue' is that we use the same explanation for a wide range of setbacks that women face in the workplace: from presentation nerves to not putting ourselves forward for a promotion or (as Sheryl Sandberg would say) 'not taking a seat at the table'. It's become too much of a general catch-all.
I would suggest that we need a different term to describe the (often extreme) self-doubt that women can experience when they consider returning to the workplace after a long time out. This is the doubt that stops you even believing that it's possible to get back into a satisfying role .. the doubt that made a highly talented MBA with 15 years' experience say to me after her 6 year break "I'm a write-off - no-one will want to hire me now".
From a psychology perspective, what you're experiencing in this situation is better termed "low self-efficacy". The psychologist Albert Bandura described self-efficacy as a person's belief in their ability to succeed in a particular situation. If you have low self-efficacy about getting back to work, then you feel less motivated and behave in negative ways that make you less likely to achieve your goal; you see barriers as insurmountable blocks rather than challenges to overcome, you lose focus and interest more quickly, and you struggle to pick yourself up again when you hit an inevitable setback.
The encouraging thing about self-efficacy is that it's not fixed - there are specific ways to boost it. Bandura identified four key sources of self-efficacy, three of which are within your control and the other you can influence:
1. Mastery. Performing a task successfully through hard work and effort improves self-efficacy. If you haven't worked for many years, you will feel 'rusty'. Create opportunities to do work-related tasks that feel daunting to you, but in a low risk environment, such as offering to chair a volunteers' meeting or taking a training course which involves group & presentation work.
2. Social Modelling. Seeing other people being successful raises our belief that we can do it too. We need role models! That's why we're collecting success stories of women who have successfully relaunched their careers. Read our stories & actively seek out women who have already gone down the road you want to take.
3. Social Persuasion. Getting encouragement from others helps us to overcome self-doubt. Spend more time with people who will encourage you and give you a boost, and less with the downbeat 'energy vampires' in your life! Remember that the people you are closest to may be discouraging about your return to work because they are worried about the impact it will have on their lives.
4. Psychological Responses. Better managing your stress levels and emotions can improve your confidence. Work out what helps you to feel calmer under stress - maybe having time to prepare, going for a run, or just taking a few deep breaths - and use these techniques consciously next time you're under pressure. Think about taking a yoga or mindfulness course if you find it difficult to manage your stress levels and emotions.
And you can use this framework to build your self-efficacy once you're back at work too!
Posted by Julianne Miles, Co-founder and MD of Women Returners